Arthur Ashe Mid-serve

Arthur Ashe (1943–1993)

Arthur Ashe was a professional tennis player, broadcaster, author, and activist. Known for his on-court grace and low-key demeanor, he was the first black men's tennis champion at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, the first African American to play for and captain the U.S. Davis Cup team, and the first black man inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Yet it was and remains Ashe's legacy outside of professional tennis for which he is most noted. He was the first and only African American to have a statue of his likeness erected on Richmond's historic Monument Avenue and one of the most prominent athletes of any race to die from AIDS. MORE...

 

Early Years

Arthur Robert Ashe Jr. was born on July 10, 1943, to Mattie Cunningham Ashe and Arthur Robert Ashe Sr., two middle-class African Americans living in strictly segregated Richmond. His mother died before he was seven, but not before teaching him to read at an early age. Small in stature, Ashe took to tennis from the age of four, mostly thanks to his father's job as caretaker at Brook Field, one of Richmond's blacks-only playgrounds. The Ashe home was located in the middle of the playground.

When he was seven, Ashe was befriended by Ronald Charity, a gifted black tennis player and coach. Charity took a keen interest in Ashe and taught him the nuances of the game. By 1953 it was obvious that the ten-year-old Ashe had talent but needed a mentor and coach. Enter Dr. Walter Johnson, a black physician and tennis coach in Lynchburg who had discovered Althea Gibson, the "Jackie Robinson" of tennis and Wimbledon singles champion in 1957 and 1958. Johnson guided Ashe through youth tennis, entered him in amateur championships, and taught Ashe the composed court manner so characteristic of him. Johnson was aware that African Americans faced racial barriers in all walks of life, and he taught his disciples to play any shot, in or out of bounds, as a way to eliminate friction in a white game. Johnson also taught them to accept mistakes and take losing with grace and a smile, traits that marked Ashe's court demeanor. Yet Ashe always was a fierce competitor, determined to win. In 1955, he won the boys-under-thirteen championship for the American Tennis Association (ATA), the black counterpart to the all-white United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA). Ashe often was not permitted to play many top white competitors, nor admitted to enter USLTA tournaments. But with Johnson's help, he successfully entered the 1958 junior national singles championships (held in New Jersey), and made it to the semifinals. He won the title in 1960 when the tournament was held in Wheeling, West Virginia, becoming the first African American to do so. He won again in 1961.

Despite his on-court successes, Ashe was little recognized in Richmond. Although he was featured in Sports Illustrated's "Faces in the Crowd" (December 12, 1960), there was virtually no opportunity in Richmond for a black tennis player, and after his junior year at Richmond's all-black Maggie Lena Walker High School, Ashe accepted the invitation of St. Louis tennis official Richard Hudlin to live with him, play against stronger (mostly white) competition, and complete high school. He graduated first in his class from Sumner High School in 1961 and accepted a tennis scholarship to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). In 1962 Ashe was the fifth-ranked junior player in the country.

Tennis and Activism

Ashe thrived at UCLA, academically and athletically. Not only did he win, but his tennis reputation grew. Guided by UCLA coach J. D. Morgan and tennis legend Richard "Pancho" Gonzalez, Ashe won the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) individual tennis title in 1965, and the UCLA team finished first in the nation. During his first three years, UCLA was the NCAA runner-up. As a sophomore, he was again featured in Sports Illustrated as a face in the crowd.

Ashe rose rapidly through the amateur rankings—by 1963 he was ranked eighteenth in the world and made the U.S. Davis Cup team, the pinnacle of international team tennis. Ashe became a regular on the Davis Cup squad, playing from 1963 to 1970 and again in 1975, 1976, and 1978. He was ranked sixth in 1964 and won the Eastern Grass Court championship that August, beating established stars Dennis Ralston and Clark Graebner. Ranked third in 1965, he defeated Australian Roy Emerson in the U.S. Open quarterfinals before losing to Manuel Santana of Spain in the semifinals.

Ashe graduated from UCLA with a business degree and joined the Army in 1966, serving two years and rising to the rank of second lieutenant, but continued playing championship-level tennis. The first of his three Grand Slam championships, named for the four most prestigious competitions of each year, came on September 9, 1968, when Ashe beat Dutchman Tom Okker to capture the U.S. Open title. He remains the only African American to win the men's title. Tennis success continued—Ashe won the 1970 Australian Open (also a Grand Slam title)—culminating in 1975 when he beat fellow American Jimmy Connors in four sets to win at Wimbledon, the only African American men's player to win that prestigious title.

In 1976, Ashe met photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy. The two married in February 1977 at the United Nations Chapel in New York City. U.S. ambassador Andrew Young performed the ceremony. By the time he was married, Ashe had become an outspoken opponent of South Africa's apartheid system of racial segregation. He had applied for and was denied a visa to play in the 1969 South African Open, leading him to become a vocal and long-term opponent of apartheid. Ashe prodded the International Lawn Tennis Federation to expel South Africa, and in 1973 he was granted a visa to play in the South African Open, winning the doubles title and losing in the singles final.

His activism was also evident at home, as Ashe and fellow tennis players formed the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) in 1972 to represent them in financial arrangements and control of tennis earnings. Ashe served as president in 1974. The ATP remains a powerful organization in world tennis. He was also active in promoting youth tennis as a founder of the National Junior Tennis League in 1969, an organization devoted to exposing youngsters, male and female, to tennis but with an emphasis on discipline and school. Ashe would lend his support to many such organizations throughout the remainder of his life, most focusing on minorities, tennis, and education.

Later Years

In July 1979 Ashe suffered a heart attack while teaching tennis to inner-city youth. Later he had quadruple bypass surgery, but chest pains continued and he retired from competition in 1980, leaving with a career record of 818 wins to 260 losses and fifty-one titles. Outside of competition, Ashe wrote a three-volume history of black athletes, performed on-air commentary for ABC Sports, and served as captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team, which won titles in 1981 and 1982. He served as chairman of the National Heart Association in 1981, was arrested at a protest against apartheid protest in Washington, D.C., in 1985, and was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1985. In 1988, he was diagnosed with HIV but initially kept his medical condition private.

On April 8, 1992, Ashe announced that he had HIV/AIDS in order to preempt USA Today's plans to publish the story. Although he began work on a memoir about his struggle with the disease, Days of Grace (1993), it would be published posthumously. Ashe died on February 6, 1993. His body lay in honor in the capitol building in Richmond, the first person so honored since 1863, when Confederate general Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson died. About six thousand people attended his funeral. He was later buried at Woodland Cemetery in Richmond.

Still, the legacy of Arthur Ashe was not complete. Richmond's historic tree-lined Monument Avenue was home to five monuments, all to prominent Confederates including Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Jackson. In 1995, the city voted to erect a sixth—to Ashe. In what became the "Battle of Monument Avenue," locating the monument there became a divisive issue taking months of debate before its unveiling on July 10, 1996, or what would have been Ashe's fifty-third birthday. The twelve-foot statue on a forty-four-ton stone column depicts Ashe facing west, surrounded by children, holding a tennis racket in one hand and carrying books in the other. The statue is a fitting tribute to the man who could not play tennis on most playgrounds in his own hometown, but who loved children and stressed learning as a means of self-improvement—a reminder of Ashe's struggle and success against racism and discrimination. As a final tribute, the center stadium court at New York's National Tennis Center, home to the U.S. Open, was named Arthur Ashe Stadium in 1997.

Time Line

  • July 10, 1943 - Arthur Robert Ashe Jr. is born in Richmond.
  • 1953 - Dr. Walter Johnson, who discovered and coached Althea Gibson, begins to coach and mentor Arthur Ashe.
  • 1958 - A fourteen-year-old Arthur Ashe becomes a semifinalist in the junior national singles championships.
  • 1960 - Arthur Ashe wins the junior national singles championship, the first African American to do so.
  • December 12, 1960 - Arthur Ashe is featured in Sports Illustrated's "Faces in the Crowd."
  • 1961 - After finishing his junior year at Maggie Lena Walker High School, Arthur Ashe moves to St. Louis to strengthen his tennis game. He later graduates first in his class from Sumner High School and accepts a tennis scholarship to the University of California, Los Angeles.
  • May 1961 - Arthur Ashe wins his second national title at the National Interscholastic Tournament held at the University of Virginia.
  • 1962 - Arthur Ashe is the fifth-ranked junior tennis player in the country.
  • 1963 - Arthur Ashe is ranked the eighteenth best tennis player in the world and makes the U.S. Davis Cup team.
  • August 1964 - Ranked the sixth best tennis player in the world, Arthur Ashe wins the Eastern Grass Court championship by beating established stars Dennis Ralston and Clark Graebner.
  • 1965 - Ranked the third best tennis player in the world, Arthur Ashe defeats Australian Roy Emerson in the U.S. Open quarterfinals but then loses to Manuel Santana of Spain in the semifinals.
  • 1966 - While continuing to play championship-level tennis, Arthur Ashe graduates from the University of California, Los Angeles, with a business degree and serves two years in the Army, rising to the rank of second lieutenant.
  • September 9, 1968 - Arthur Ashe wins the U.S. Open title by defeating Tom Okker.
  • 1969 - Arthur Ashe applies for but is denied a visa to play in the South African Open, leading him to become a vocal and long-term opponent of apartheid.
  • 1969 - Arthur Ashe becomes a founder of the National Junior Tennis League, an organization devoted to exposing youth to tennis but with an emphasis on discipline and education.
  • 1970 - Arthur Ashe wins the Australian Open.
  • 1972 - With fellow professional tennis players, Arthur Ashe helps to form the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) to represent their interests in financial arrangements and to give them control of their tennis earnings.
  • 1973 - Arthur Ashe is granted a visa to play in the South Africa Open. He wins the doubles title but loses in the singles final.
  • 1974 - Arthur Ashe serves as president of the Association of Tennis Professionals.
  • July 5, 1975 - In four sets, Arthur Ashe defeats fellow American Jimmy Connors to capture the men's singles championship title at Wimbledon.
  • February 20, 1977 - Arthur Ashe marries photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy at the United Nations Chapel in New York City.
  • July 31, 1979 - Arthur Ashe suffers a heart attack while teaching tennis to inner-city youth and undergoes quadruple bypass surgery.
  • April 16, 1980 - Arthur Ashe retires from tennis competition.
  • 1981–1985 - Arthur Ashe serves as captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team, winning titles in 1981 and 1982.
  • 1981 - Arthur Ashe serves as chairman of the National Heart Association.
  • 1983 - Arthur Ashe undergoes his second bypass surgery and receives a blood transfusion.
  • 1985 - Arthur Ashe is inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
  • January 11, 1985 - Arthur Ashe and more than forty other protesters are arrested for their demonstration against apartheid outside the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C.
  • December 21, 1986 - Camera Ashe, daughter of Arthur Ashe and Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, is born.
  • 1988 - Arthur Ashe is diagnosed with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).
  • April 8, 1992 - Arthur Ashe announces that he has HIV/AIDS in order to preempt USA Today from publishing an article about the story.
  • February 6, 1993 - Arthur Ashe dies and his body is laid in honor in the capitol building in Richmond, the first person honored in this way since 1863, when Confederate general Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson died.
  • 1993 - Arthur Ashe is buried in Woodland Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.
  • 1995 - The city of Richmond votes to erect a statue on Monument Avenue dedicated to Arthur Ashe.
  • July 10, 1996 - The statue of Arthur Ashe is unveiled on Monument Avenue in Richmond.
  • 1997 - The center stadium court at New York's National Tennis Center, home to the U.S. Open, is named Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Further Reading
Ashe, Arthur and Neil Amdur. Off the Court. New York: New American Library, 1981.
Ashe, Arthur and Arnold Rampersad. Days of Grace: A Memoir. New York: Knopf, 1993.
Ashe, Arthur and Frank Deford. Arthur Ashe: Portrait in Motion. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1975.
Robinson Jr., Louie. Arthur Ashe: Tennis Champion. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967. (YA)
Steins, Richard. Arthur Ashe: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2005.
Cite This Entry
APA Citation:
Childress, B. Arthur Ashe (1943–1993). (2014, April 8). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Ashe_Arthur_1943-1993.

MLA Citation:
Childress, B. "Arthur Ashe (1943–1993)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 8 Apr. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: November 6, 2008 | Last modified: April 8, 2014


Contributed by Boyd Childress, head of the Library of Architecture, Design, and Construction at Auburn University.